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Kyrgyz president makes refugees feel at home

News Stories, 2 September 2002

© UNHCR
Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev congratulates a Tajik refugee on receiving her Kyrgyz passport and citizenship.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, September 2 (UNHCR) In an important boost to Kyrgyzstan's naturalisation process, President Askar Akaev recently presided over a ceremony to distribute passports to 69 long-time Tajik refugees.

Last Friday's event saw refugees living in the Chui Valley near Bishkek receive passports, and hence Kyrgyz citizenship, personally from the President in a colourful ceremony that ended in a fanfare of national music and song.

In his speech welcoming the refugees as new Kyrgyz citizens, President Akaev praised the work of UNHCR and thanked the agency for finding durable solutions for refugees in Kyrgyzstan. He was joined at the ceremony by refugees and their families, as well as the country's State Secretary, Vice-Prime Minister, the Ministers of Interior and Foreign Affairs, and several parliamentarians.

Across Kyrgyzstan, a total of 89 Tajik refugee men and women were granted citizenship last Friday following a presidential decree. The actual number of people who obtained Kyrgyz nationality was much higher, as children obtain citizenship through their parents. Thus the total number of new Kyrgyz may be several hundred persons.

The recently-naturalised refugees have been living in Kyrgyzstan for more than eight years. All were predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz who fled Tajikistan during the five-year civil war that erupted following the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

James Lynch, who heads UNHCR's liaison office in the Kyrgyz capital, said that to date more than 1,500 Tajik refugees have been naturalised, with most of them becoming citizens of the Central Asian state in the last year.

Lynch believes the President's personal interest in naturalising the Tajik refugees, many of whom have prospered as farmers, will help the remaining 6,000 Tajiks end the limbo of refugee life and become Kyrgyz citizens soon, if they wish.

"It shows all levels of government that he wants it to happen," said UNHCR's Lynch of the significance of President Akaev's presence on Friday to the momentum behind naturalising refugees.

Despite the option of assuming Kyrgyz nationality, some 7,000 mainly ethnic Kyrgyz refugees have returned home since the civil war ended in Tajikistan, with 2,000 people having gone back in the last two years.

Those people naturalised to date were considered legally stateless as they had fled Tajikistan before that state promulgated its constitution in late 1994. To help refugees who fled Tajikistan later and who wish to become Kyrgyz nationals, Lynch said his office is gathering all the necessary paperwork so that they will obtain Kyrgyz nationality upon application, without having to renounce their Tajik citizenship first and then having to wait in interim statelessness. This parallel procedure follows a May 2002 accord signed by the Kyrgyz and Tajik Foreign Ministers in St. Petersburg.

Throughout Central Asia, UNHCR has been working for years to resolve the pressing matter of statelessness, which affects more than 230,000 people across the region. The leadership role being taken by President Akaev is an important symbol, and one that the refugee agency hopes will not be missed by other Central Asian presidents.

"Kyrgyzstan is doing quite well. It has been an extremely positive relationship that we're trying to replicate elsewhere in Central Asia," said UNHCR Senior Legal Officer Carol Batchelor, who heads the agency's unit that works to resolve issues of statelessness worldwide and promotes accession to the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The Conventions have been signed by 54 and 26 states respectively.

Batchelor said an important aspect of Kyrgyzstan's outlook in the 11 years since its independence has been the republic's willingness to re-examine legislation and look after the needs of its refugee population in a practical way, recognising that some people might want to stay to contribute to the country.

"Kyrgyzstan adopted a citizenship law when it first became independent, but it didn't leave it at that," she said. "It has taken the next step to review its existing citizenship law and is currently revising this law to incorporate provisions aimed at the reduction and avoidance of statelessness. We have been very pleased that the authorities have sought technical expertise from us in that regard."

"States don't always make the link between UNHCR and issues relating to citizenship. Through workshops and different capacity-building initiatives, we've been able to demonstrate that statelessness is a problem and also to negotiate some durable solutions," Batchelor said of UNHCR's work to advance the agency's mission to end statelessness in Kyrgyzstan and worldwide.

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UN Conventions on Statelessness

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A Place to Call Home: The Situation of Stateless Persons in the Kyrgyz Republic

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Prominent Refugees

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Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

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